Games in Schools: Making “Ender’s Game” a Reality

An education researcher tallies the pluses and minuses of gamification

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Next year, a film version of the 1985 science fiction classic Ender’s Game will hit movie theaters. By then, the book’s premise—that students learn through playing games, largely teaching themselves and each other—will have had another year to leave the realm of science fiction and become a reality.

People have been saying for a while that we should take this idea seriously. A 2003 article in Wired, for example, argued that “when kids play video games, they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom.”

Is this a real trend? And is it one we should encourage? A 2011 article in the journal Academic Exchange Quarterly took an objective look into those questions, as you can see in the paper’s title, which was “Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?”[PDF] In it, the authors, Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer, both affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University, here in New York, say, “Today’s schools face major problems around student motivation and engagement. Gamification”—which they define as “the incorporation of game elements into nongame settings”—“provides an opportunity to help schools solve these difficult problems.”

My guest today is Jessica Hammer. She’s a former game designer who’s now a graduate research fellow at Teachers College and a founding member of the EGGPLANT game research lab there. She joins us by phone from Stockbridge, Mass.

Jessica, welcome to the podcast.

Jessica Hammer: Thank you, Steven. Pleasure to be here.

Let’s start with Ender’s Game, which, again, was written in 1985, by Orson Scott Card. About 10 years ago, a special issue of InSight [PDF], which is a journal devoted to education technologies, described the premise of the novel in the following way. It’s kind of a long quote, but maybe it gets to the heart of the question. In Ender’s Game,

“The best and brightest young minds are gathered together and trained through a curriculum that consists almost entirely of games—both electronic and physical. Teachers play almost no overt role in the process, shaping the children’s development primarily through the recruitment of players, the design of game rules, and the construction of contested spaces. Games become the central focus of the students’ lives: They play games in classes, in their off-hours, even as part of their private contemplation. Much of the learning occurs through participation in gaming communities, as the most gifted players pass along what they have learned to the other players.

In [Orson Scott] Card’s world, games teach by encouraging competition, experimentation, exploration, innovation, and transgression.”

So, is that the argument for games in education?

Jessica Hammer: Well, I think what that quote captures is actually the argument for and against games in education in one very pithy way. So you certainly have games [that] can inspire, can motivate, can encourage people to explore things both in the world and in themselves that they never would have otherwise. But at the same time, if you’re familiar with Ender’s Game, Ender, throughout the course of the novel, becomes incredibly sort of tormented and psychologically damaged by the immense pressure that the game system puts on him. And, in fact, it’s the withdrawal of teachers and adult support that puts him in situations that both make him good at the game but also leave him damaged for the rest of Card’s series.

So I think that we can learn from Ender’s Game and from that quote some of the things that games can do, and that games are already doing, in real-world school environments around the globe. But at the same time, it’s going much too far to say that we don’t need teachers anymore, especially if we hope to reach a wide variety of kids, of learners, of all ages.

So in my own research, I have seen that for some learners, games by themselves can be profoundly transformative. For example, I’ve worked with a group of players who play history games. They get extraordinarily interested in doing historical research, and there’s no supervisor, there’s no teacher figure in that group. They’re doing this because the game puts them in a situation where doing historical research is a pleasure, not a duty or a demand. On the other hand, if you try to learn just from games, without a teacher to help you reflect on, understand, and process what you’re doing, you’re going to have a much harder time engaging in what we call “transfer,” so, transferring what you’ve learned from the context of the game to other contexts, whether that’s the school or to your everyday life. So the role of the teacher is actually critical.

Steven Cherry: The history example is kind of interesting, but most of the most popular games are things like first-person shooters. It’s easy to see how the army can use them to train soldiers, but not so easy to see how to use them to train citizens and scientists and business owners and architects.

Jessica Hammer: Well, I think that the perception of what games are popular is actually sort of constructed by the media, and I apologize—I don’t have figures in front of me for what the most popular games are. But, for example, Angry Birds is one of the most popular games in the world and has been for the last couple of years. Angry Birds is a game about physics. In Angry Birds, you have to calculate trajectories; you have to understand center of mass; you have to understand momentum. Now, it’s all simplified because it’s presented in a game context, but essentially, people who play Angry Birds are playing with physics and becoming expert at gaining physics intuitions.

We know that gaining intuitions is something that games can do remarkably well, because they can give you a chance to experiment, to build models in your head that you can then test against more formal understandings that might be delivered in a classroom or through a textbook or even through peer mentoring and teaching. 

Steven Cherry: Now, that’s some of the ways games can help students cognitively. You also point out that there’s a social and an emotional element to their learning.

Jessica Hammer: Absolutely. And the social and emotional element to games is, I think, one of the places that games can offer a great deal to classrooms. We ask students to be very emotionally constrained in the classroom, to only perform certain emotions, to only behave in very specific ways, and games can give people the liberty to try on different identities, different selves. Sometimes that can be literal. For example, you might take on the role of an elvin mage in a game like World of Warcraft, or you might take on the role of someone who’s very competitive, even if you’re shy in the classroom. And we have seen that games can provide sort of an alternate context, even inside the classroom, so kids who see themselves as academic failures can look to games as a place where they can be strong. And if that’s happening within the context of the classroom, they all of a sudden see themselves as somebody that has something to offer in the school. 

Steven Cherry: Now, what about kids that are just bad at games? If they’re good at traditional schoolwork, then you’ve just turned good students into bad ones. And if they’re bad at traditional schoolwork, then you’ve just tied two stones together in the hopes that they’ll float.

Jessica Hammer: Right, so there’s two answers to that question. One is, there is no way to design a school that suits all students, and in some ways the best thing we can do is we can offer students lots of contexts within the larger environment of school so that they can all have different ways of succeeding in the classroom. That different students may have different strengths that come out in play, they may be shy about showing off what they can do in a more formal learning environment, but in play they can do it. So game context can provide another way for students who haven’t shone to shine.

That doesn’t have to take away from the students who are already successful, unless you make games mandatory, and that’s actually one of the big social and emotional challenges around games, is that play is sort of an autonomous activity—that at the heart of play is the voluntary engagement with something that creates pleasure. You’re deliberately taking on difficulties, you’re deliberately taking on challenges, and there’s some great research coming out of Michigan State, run by Carrie Heeter, that shows that when you force people to play games, they actually don’t experience it as a game. They learn less from the experience, and they don’t like it. I mean, this sounds like common sense, but there’s sort of evidence that this is really true—that if you force people to play, it is less like play, and you don’t gain the benefits of play.

So that’s one of the things that Dr. Lee and I have been talking about is “gamification,” as opposed to just games. So can we take lessons from game design to enhance the design of school-based systems to reward students in different ways?

So even if you look at Quest to Learn, the game school in New York City, it’s not all playing games. They’re also taking lessons from game design about emotional expressiveness, about rewards systems, about feedback loops, and they’re applying them to the design of schools. So we’ve done work in middle school science classrooms, for example, where we’re using game-design techniques to get students to practice taking on identities as scientists, so what we like to call “science-mindedness.”

So there’s a set of beliefs and attitudes that go along with being able to do science, whether that’s sort of observation, or testing hypotheses, or being willing to admit that you’re wrong, and we are actually using game-design techniques to get students to notice when they’re taking on these identities and encourage them to do it more in the science classroom.  And these are sort of students that who are being poorly served in our larger sort of stem education community.  These are low-income black and Hispanic students, half of whom are women. These are not the sort of majority; these are people who are sort of underrepresented in science, math, and technology, and through these sort of techniques, they’re able to start to see themselves as scientists.

Steven Cherry: I’m glad you brought up gender, because it sounds like, paradoxically, games, which a lot of people see as largely biased toward boys, might be a way of combating gender bias in schools.

Jessica Hammer: Right. You know, the question of whether games are biased toward boys or not is a very interesting question, because it depends a lot on where you draw the line and what you count as a game. So if you look sort of broadly at game play, even at just digital game play, forget nondigital games, right? At digital game play, women are 47 percent of all game players. The problem is that the game journalism and game industry often plays with this sort of definitional trick that they sort of count whatever games boys are predominantly playing as real games, and dismiss or ignore the kind of games that girls play. And that’s a real problem, because 96 percent of teenage girls play games.

 And that’s an incredible way to reach them, because these are girls that may have believed that they are not good at, for example, physics. They may be being told by our society, by their advisors, by their family, by their friends that they are not good at, for example, physics. But by playing something like Angry Birds, they are developing those physics intuitions, whether they know it or not, and that’s an incredible strength that teachers can connect to in the classroom that sort of short circuits a lot of the cultural messages that girls get about games.

Steven Cherry: The biggest trend in education now might be online learning, especially the kind of hybrid online in-class models that are springing up. Is there any interplay, pun intended, I guess, between that and gamification?

Jessica Hammer: There’s no question that these massively open online courses are using gamification techniques to keep students engaged. Because they’re online, students can kind of participate as much or as little as they want to, so they have to actually think about what we like to call “motivational design,” and games are motivation engines. I mean, what does a game do? It gets you to do ridiculous stuff that you never thought you would see yourself doing, right? I mean, think about playing charades, right? You’re acting out ridiculous things. Think about playing something like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. You’re spending a lot of time caring about what the game tells you to care about, so games are brilliant at that. So it seems clear that these online learning courses would like to borrow that kind of deep engagement and deep motivation. I have to say that whether or not they do it well is an open question. You know, as with most things, I think some will and most won’t.

Steven Cherry: So where are we on the adoption curve? When will the average parent in, I don’t know, Minnesota or Arizona see their kids playing games and claiming they’re just doing their homework?

Jessica Hammer: So games in learning have a long and storied history that, actually for a very long time, parents in Minnesota have been seeing their kids playing games. We’ve just restricted that to nondigital games, and we’ve mostly focused on it for young children. So if we send our kids to kindergarten, we’re not surprised if they come home and say, you know, “I played a counting game today,” right? There’s that sort of pleasure in play, and the classrooms are set up so that kids are actually able to play in schools. So I think what we’re seeing is a push to expand the ways in which games are being used for learning, from the nondigital to the hybrid to the digital, and from young children to learners of all ages. 

Steven Cherry: Very good. For better or worse, it seems like this is a debate that’s just going to get longer and louder, especially after Ender’s Game the movie comes out next November, so thanks for giving us a lot to think about between now and then.

Jessica Hammer: My pleasure.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Columbia University research fellow and former game designer Jessica Hammer about turning school curricula into games and vice versa.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 27 December 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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